The Doctrines of the Fall and Salvation in Eastern Orthodox Theology (1)

Much attention has been given in recent years to the increasing number of conservative Protestants who are converting to Roman Catholicism. What is less well documented is that during this time a significant number of conservative Protestants—including some from Reformed backgrounds—have instead converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. The best known is perhaps Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Protestant apologist Francis Schaeffer. Reformed Christians confronting Eastern Orthodoxy for the first time, seeing the kissing of icons, the elaborate priestly garb, and the constant swinging of the incense sensor, will likely be struck by its strangeness and foreignness. Yet it is imperative for Reformed people to become acquainted with this ancient form of Christianity because it promises to be a player on the American religious scene in the years to come.

This paper seeks to familiarize readers with the doctrines of Eastern Orhthodoxy in two important areas: the fall of man and salvation in Christ. Though these are by no means the only two points of Orthodox teaching which ought to be examined, the importance of these doctrines in Reformed theology make them an interesting starting point for us. For readers wishing to explore beyond these two issues in the history and theology of Orthodoxy, I suggest consulting Orthodox theologian Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).


Before we begin our examination of the Orthodox views of fall and salvation, it may be helpful to briefly sketch the historical background of the Eastern church. During the early centuries of church history, most churches regarded as “Eastern” were found in Greece, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Egypt. They were predominantly Greek-speaking, while the churches in the “West” were predominantly Latin-speaking. At this time, Christians in the East and the West, politically united in the Roman Empire, interacted with each other and mutually participated in the Ecumenical Councils which worked out the critical trinitarian and Christo-logical doctrines. As time wore on, however, the cultural differences between the groups took their toll and variations in theological emphasis became more pronounced. Politically, the two groups were fractured: The eastern part of the old Roman Empire, centered in Byzantium/Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), remained largely intact while the western part, which had been centered in Rome, crumbled. Socially, the Muslim conquests took a much deeper toll on the churches of the East than of the West, and thus more significantly shaped the Eastern experience. Theologically, two major rifts between the Eastern and Western churches gradually developed which came to a head in the 11th century.



The Nicene Creed

One major theological rift concerned the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed. The original Creed had not included the words “and the Son” after the statement “I believe in the Holy Spirit…who proceeds from the Father.” During the early Middle Ages, however, Christians in the West adopted the addition of these words as a more complete and accurate expression of the relationship of the persons of the Godhead. The Eastern churches never approved of this addition, and in fact developed their trinitarian theology in such a way as to make these new words quite unacceptable. This disagreement is often called the filioque (Latin for “and the Son”) controversy, and this remains a noteworthy division between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christendom (both Protestant and Roman Catholic).

The Papacy

The other major theological rift concerned the Papacy. The Eastern churches had developed a hierarchical structure of church authority, including, in ascending order of importance, priests, bishops, metropolitans and patriarchs. They were also willing to afford the church in Rome a great deal of respect and to acknowledge the bishop of Rome as one of the great patriarchs. They would not, however, accept the supremacy of the Roman bishop (the Pope) over the other patriarchs who were found in Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria.


These differences finally produced schism in 1054. In that year the Pope excommunicated Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who in turn excommunicated the Roman messenger who delivered the bull of excommunication. Though some attempts at reconciliation were made over the next century and a half, the hostilities were sealed in 1204 when western Crusaders captured and sacked Constantinople, a deed of indescribable insult to the Eastern churches. In the many centuries since, East and West have communicated only sporadically and without much fruit to show for it. However, in recent years both the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople have displayed serious interest in resolving the differences between their respective bodies, and Orthodox theologians have entered into dialogues with some Protestant groups.

Today there are some remnants of Eastern Orthodoxy in Turkey, Palestine and Egypt. But Orthodox people are a distinct minority in these places and most live under Muslim domination. Orthodoxy does remain the primary religious force in a number of countries including Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine and Russia. Immigrants from these places have established churches in America which can be seen all over this country. Most retain a very close link with their ethnic heritage, though some Orthodox people are seriously attempting to develop a distinctly American-style Orthodoxy stripped of its unnecessary old-world baggage. In short, Eastern Orthodoxy retains a significant place in the worldwide religious scene, and has established a presence in America as well. And for restless Protestants weary of informal worship and a lack of connection with a theological past, the reverence and seeming timelessness of Eastern Orthodoxy will likely continue to be a tempting alternative to both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.


We turn now to an examination of the Eastern Orthodox view of the fall of the human race into sin. At the outset, we should stress that this topic really is an important one. Not only is it one of the very first things which is recorded in the Bible, but it has serious consequences for one’s views on the doctrine of salvation itself. After all, people cannot really understand what salvation is all about unless they understand what they must be saved from. As we will see in Eastern theology, as in most other theologies, the doctrine of the fall shapes the expression of the doctrine of salvation, and thus it deserves a careful study.

Much of the Orthodox doctrine on the creation of Adam is consistent with the beliefs of Reformed theology. The Orthodox do affirm the historicity of Adam and his creation as a sinless bearer of the image of God. Some of the early Eastern theologians (whom we will call the “Greek Fathers”) spoke in terms similar to those used by many Reformed theologians: Adam was placed in a provisionary, probationary state in which his obedience to God was tested, and incorruptibility and union with God would have been the reward of obedience.1 Some Orthodox writers do emphasize that the task set before Adam was a process of progressing in godliness, of ascending to the Divine. This is something usually lacking in Reformed thinking. But like Reformed theology, Eastern Orthodoxy affirms that Adam did not pass the test.

The serious differences between Orthodoxy and Reformed theology can be quickly seen, however, when one begins to examine the Orthodox view of the consequences of Adam’s disobedience. To summarize, it seems fair to say that Eastern Orthodoxy does not believe that the results of the fall were as disastrous as Reformed theology believes them to be. Two major differences emerge: First, though Orthodoxy believes that each person bears some guilt for his own sin, it does not think that anyone bears the guilt of Adam’s first sin except Adam himself; and second, while Orthodoxy does hold that human ability to do good was seriously damaged when Adam fell, it does not believe that man is totally depraved. We will now address these two issues in order.

The Guilt of Adam’s Sin

In regard to the guilt of Adam’s sin, contemporary American Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff has written:

From these basic ideas about the personal character of sin, it is evident that the rebellion ofAdam and Eve against God could be conceived only as their personal sin; there would be no place, then, in such an anthropology for the concept of inherited guilt, or for a “sin of nature,” although it admits that human nature incurs the consequences of Adam’s sin.2

This statement summarizes some of the concerns which Orthodox theologians feel as they observe the way many Westerners, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, handle “original sin” and the “imputation” of Adam’s guilt. Though different Western theologians deal with these concepts in substantially different ways, one important similarity is that most Western theological traditions affirm that all people today, in one way or another, bear the guilt that Adam incurred by eating of the forbidden fruit. Some Westerners have proposed that we bear Adam’s guilt because somehow we were all physically in Adam when he fell, and thus that we all participated in it. Other Westerners believe that we are all born corrupt, and that it is for this reason that God holds us guilty for Adam’s first sin. This second view is sometimes called the “mediate imputation” of Adam’s guilt because his guilt is “mediated” (or perhaps “passed down”) through the prior generations to the present generation. A third Western view is that of “immediate imputation,” which holds that Adam’s sin is directly and “immediately” charged against each of his individual descendants, rather than being passed down from generation to generation. It is this last view which in large part won the day in Reformed theology.3

Eastern Orthodoxy would disagree with all three of these formulations (though it may be doubted whether it has seriously considered the third). As the quote from Meyendorff suggests, Orthodoxy does not believe God will hold anyone guilty for any sin which he does not personally commit. Thus, the focus of Eastern thinking on the consequences of Adam’s sin is only on the corruption and mortality which he brought into the world. Adam’s sin weakened human nature and issued hardship and destruction into the natural world. Adam’s sin placed his posterity under the dominion of death and the tyranny of Satan. But, Orthodoxy says, Adam’s sin did not make anyone else guilty before God. Only one’s own sin can do that.

This theological debate might appear to be minor or hair-splitting. It is, in fact, of great importance to one’s Christian faith. This is perhaps best illustrated by a glance at Romans 5:12–21. There the apostle Paul, in the midst of the Bible’s most lengthy and detailed exposition of our salvation in Christ, explains the doctrine of justification by comparing it to our fall in Adam. In verse after verse Paul analogizes salvation in Christ with fall in Adam, and stresses that we stand in a relationship with Christ which is similar to our prior relationship with Adam. The upshot of this is that the accuracy with which we define the effect of Adam’s fall on us will greatly impact our ability to accurately define the effect of Christ’s saving work on us. Romans 5:18 is particularly relevant here: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (NIV). Note that Paul here speaks about condemnation (which involves a judicial decree of guilt), and he speaks of it coming upon all, not just upon Adam, the one who actually sinned. How did condemnation fall upon everyone? Not by the individual sins of each person, but by one trespass, the first sin of Adam. And note also the comparison of Adam with Christ: the result of Christ’s act of redemption occurred “just as” the result of Adam’s sin did. Therefore, if we assert that Adam’s sin only got people going down the wrong road, but that they bring condemnation upon themselves, then the logical corollary is that Christ’s act of redemption only got people going down the right road, but that they earn justification for themselves. When we see how erroneous and dangerous a conclusion logically results from a misunderstanding of the consequences of Adam’s sin, we ought to be encouraged to take this issue very seriously.

Has Eastern Orthodox theology, then, wholly gone astray in its doctrine of the sin of Adam? The answer, I think, is no. This is not because the issue is not important, but because there have been some revered voices in the history ofEast em theology who have actually affirmed the “Western” view that Adam’s sin did bring guilt upon the whole human race. Eastern Orthodox people have an enormous respect for the Greek Fathers and a great desire to be faithful to the theological ground which they broke. Their opinions are afforded weighty status. Therefore, if we can show that some important Greek Fathers believed in an imputation of Adam’s guilt, then a case can be made that such a doctrine has a legitimate place in Orthodox theology, even if it was never emphasized by most of the Greek Fathers and is rejected by modern-day Orthodox theologians.

Two examples wili be offered here. The first quote comes from the great 4th century Alexandrian theologian, Athanasius:

But since the debt owed by ali men had still to be paid, for all, as I said above, had to die, therefore after the proof of his [Christ’s] divinity given by his works, he now on behalf of all men offered the sacrifice and surrendered his own temple to death on behalf of ali, in order to make them all guiltless and free from the first transgression, and to reveal himself superior to death, showing his own incorruptible body as first fruits of the universal redemption (italics mine).4

Note that here Athanasius states that Christ’s death makes people guiltless of the first transgression. The implication one must draw from this statement is that apart from Christ’s work, people were guilty of the first transgression, the very thing which modern Orthodox theologians deny.

A second quote comes from the highly-regarded preacher and biblical commentator of 4th and 5th century Constantinople, John Chrysostom, commenting on Romans 5:

For that one man should be punished on account of another does not seem to be much in accordance with reason. But for one to be saved on account of another is at once more suitable and more reasonable. Of then the former took place, much more may the latter. Hence he has shown from these grounds the likelihood and reasonableness of it. For when the former had been made good, this would be readily admitted.5

Here John admits that the idea that one person would be condemned for another’s sin is hard to accept. Yet he appeals to the fact that this has happened in the case of Adam and his posterity in order to demonstrate that people are also saved on account of another’s work, namely, Christ’s. For, he says, if the thing which is difficult to accept took place (one person bringing condemnation on another), then it is that much easier to accept that which is less offensive (that one person could earn salvation for another). Later John states even more explicitly: “[T]he world was condemned from Adam, but from Christ was saved and freed from condemnation.”6 Certainly it seems that the beloved John Chrysostom also rejected the now-prevailing Eastern position. Examples such as these ought to be pointed out to Eastern Orthodox people in the hope that they may come to rediscover the important biblical truths here which are lying dormant in their tradition.

The Freedom of the Will and Total Depravity

We turn now to the second key difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and Reformed theology in regard to the consequences of the sin of Adam. This involves the Orthodox belief in the freedom of the human will after the fall and its corresponding rejection of the doctrine of total depravity. Contemporary English Orthodox theologian Timothy Ware writes:

Orthodox do not say, as Calvin said, that humans after the fall were utterly depraved and incapable of good desires. They cannot agree with Augustine, when he writes that humans are under “a harsh necessity” of committing sin, and that “human nature was overcome by the fault into which it fell and so came to lack freedom” (italics his).7

Orthodox theologians place great stress upon the retention of the image of God in fallen humanity, and on God’s continuing love for the human race. They believe that one essential component of the image of God is free will: the absence of free will would make a being less than fully human. Thus Ware writes: “And because we still retain the image of God, we still retain free will, although sin restricts its scope.”8 As one might expect, such views also lead to the conclusion that people must exercise their free will in cooperation with God if they are to be saved. Again, Ware’s comments are instructive on this point:

The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon human freedom. To describe the relation between the grace of God and human freedom, Orthodoxy uses the term cooperation or synergy…If we are to achieve full fellowship with God, we cannot do so without God’s help, yet we must also play our own part: we humans as well as God must make our contribution to the common work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what we do.9

From quotations such as these it should be readily evident to those familiar with Reformed theology how different such views are from those espoused by Augustine, Calvin and later Calvinist theologians. It is true that there is much attractive in the Orthodox position. Even at their worst, people are still image-bearers of God who retain the liberty to do good or evil. There is still much to admire even in the most fallen of human beings. Who would not like to believe this, and reject the Augustinian-Calvinist belief in total depravity, which Ware terms “sombre”? Yet the biblical record compels us to hold otherwise, however unattractive. Though Ware, in defense of free will, states, “God wanted sons and daughters, not slaves,” Scripture asserts that all who sin are “slaves” to sin (John 8:34). Though Ware speaks of sinful humans making a contribution to a common work with God, Scripture assigns us no such ability, instead describing us as “dead in our transgressions and sins” until God, of His own initiative and grace, makes us “alive with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1 ,5). Though most Reformed theologians believe that some spark of the divine image remains in fallen humanity, and that unbelievers can do “civil” good, they cannot ignore the graphic imagery of slavery and death which Scripture employs to describe the state of our race as we stand in Adam apart from Christ.

So, as we conclude this section, where does fallen man stand before God in Eastern Orthodox theology? He stands in a bad position, but not in too bad of a position. His human liberty and ability to do good works has been damaged, but not destroyed. Death and Satan prevent him from making the ascent to God that Adam could have made before the fall, but they do not prevent him from making a small step to God in cooperation with Him. He bears guilt for his own personal sins, but he is not condemned for the sin of Adam.

All these things must be kept in mind as we move to the next section, for they intimately shape the Orthodox doctrine of salvation.


1. For some examples, see Athanasius, Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, trans. and ed. Robert W. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 141; John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” in Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr. (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1958),265-6. For a modem statement, see Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, trans. Lydia Kesich (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 105.

2. Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 143.

3. For a detailed defense of immediate imputation, see John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959).

4. Athanasius, De Incarnatoine, 183.

5. The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Oxford, 1848), 151–52.

6. Ibid., 155. See also 154.

7. The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 223.

8. Ibid., 224.

9. Ibid., 221.

Mr. Van Drunen has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in CA. He is a student at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago IL, and at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield IL. He is a member of the Western Springs CRC in IL.